By handily defeating a good field in the nine-furlong contest, Soldat becomes the likely favorite for the $1 million Florida Derby (gr. I) April 3 and puts himself near the top of the list of 3-year-old Triple Crown candidates. A stakes winner on turf and runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. IIT) last year, many were still not convinced that Soldat would do his best running on dry dirt, especially after an allowance victory in the mud last month during his season debut.
Kiaran McLaughlin was never concerned about Soldat’s ability to run big on a dry track, as the trainer said he had been training very well over it at Palm Meadows. He proved it to everyone Feb. 26.
Breaking from the rail under Alan Garcia, Soldat took the lead into the first turn and ran uncontested through an easy first quarter in :24.34 with longshot El Grayling and To Honor and Serve pressing the pace. El Grayling moved a little closer to Soldat on the backstretch, as the half-mile went in :47.99.
To Honor and Serve, a two-time grade II winner as a juvenile making his 3-year-old debut, ran by El Grayling and came up to challenge Soldat as they approached the far turn. He was briefly able to run alongside his rival, but as they came off the turn Soldat began edging away. Gourmet Dinner, who raced in fourth through the backstretch, made a menacing four-wide move under Ramon Dominguez entering the lane and was the only threat to Soldat in the final furlong.
But Soldat, who ran three-quarters in 1:12.43, had plenty left for the stretch drive and held the Holy Bull (gr. III) third-place finisher at bay with steady urging from Garcia. The final time was 1:50.23. Gourmet Dinner was 4 3/4 lengths in front of To Honor and Serve and John Velazquez.
Soldat was runner-up in two starts on dirt to begin his career, prompting McLaughlin to switch him to turf. He responded with a win in the With Anticipation (gr. IIIT) at Saratoga in September and runner-up efforts in the Pilgrim (gr. IIIT) and BC Juvenile Turf in the fall. The dark bay/brown colt romped by 10 3/4 lengths in a Jan. 21 allowance win at Gulfstream going nine furlongs. He was the 2-1 second choice in the Fountain of Youth, but wound up going off as the slight 7-5 favorite.
“When he drew the one post we decided he had to go to the lead," McLaughlin said. "That doesn’t mean we might not have another strategy in the future (depending on draw). It’s on to the Florida Derby now. He’s always done everything right and today we got the fast track we wanted. The timing of the program here is perfect for us; five weeks from now to the Florida Derby and another five weeks to the Kentucky Derby. I’m very happy for this group of owners.”
Harvey A. Clarke owns the majority interest in Soldat, who was bred in Kentucky by Brookfield Stud and is out of the Coronado’s Quest mare Le Relais. He is also owned by W. Craig Robertson III, as well as Paul Braverman and Namcook Stables, who purchased a minority interest in the Derby prospect earlier this week.
It will also be on to the Florida Derby for To Honor and Serve. "(Velazquez) liked his race," trainer Bill Mott said. "He said (To Honor and Serve) did everything he asked until he got to the quarter pole, and then he said he got a little flat. I can imagine he might have needed the race. If he got beat I thought he might carry (Velazquez) a little more into the stretch.
"It looks like he needed the race. John compared him to the horse he rode and won the Davona Dale (R Heat Lightning). The first time down here she was a little flat and she came back and ran big today.”
With the win, Soldat improved to 3-4-0 from seven starts and earnings of $554,300.
The winner paid $4.80, $3, and $2.20. The exacta (1-2) returned $13.80 and the trifecta (1-2-7) was worth $18.80 for $1.